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Two times Brutus

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Decimius Brutus' denarius showing the consul Aulus Postumius Albinus, his ancestor
Decimius Brutus' denarius showing the consul Aulus Postumius Albinus, his ancestor | Photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Over the dying Julius Caesar did not stand his longtime enemies or sworn defenders of the rights of the crumbling Republic. The consuls appointed by him, governors, commanders fighting at his side from Gaul to Africa, as well as close friends, reached for daggers. Among them stood Brutus, or rather two Brutus – Marcus and Decimius. The history of both politicians shows how different paths led to the conspiracy against Caesar.

Marcus and Decimius came from the Junius Brutus family, but they were not brothers, as sometimes even scientific works describe them. Both had a common ancestor and could be proud of their descent from Lucius – the first consul of the Roman Republic. Much has been written about the former, while the latter remained in the shadow of events and the text will be devoted mainly to it. Ironically, little is known about either character. Doubts arise both in the case of the year of birth of both politicians, the mother of Decimius, and there is also the matter of the alleged paternity of Caesar, one of them. In principle, the text would not have to have a title referring to Brutus, because at some point both were adopted as young people and according to the rules, they took the names of their new fathers, but they used their old names. The figure of the legendary consul who overthrew the tyrant and established the republic weighed heavily on all Junius Brutus, but Decimius was also a continuator of another tradition. His new Postumius family descended from Aulus Postumius Albinus, who defeated the Latin League army in the Battle of Lake Regillus and prevented the return of the monarchy.

Decimius at the time of his death in 43 BCE was about 38 years old, which put him somewhere in the middle cursus honorum, and only the civil war meant that at that time he was already a praetor, provincial governor and consul-designate for 42 BCE. So he did not repeat the success of his father, who was elected to this position in 77 BCE. This year is also of great importance for Roman politics, because the former consul Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and the former tribune Marcus Brutus, who led the rebellion against the order introduced by Lucius Cornelius Sulla, died then. In this case, the similarity of names is not accidental, because politicians were the fathers of key figures during Caesar’s dictatorship and the events after his death. The young, talented commander, Gnaeus Pompeius, took part in suppressing the revolt, on whose orders Marcus Brutus was killed. The liquidation of opponents was still a political tool, although the shock of Sulla’s proscriptions seemed to long eradicate this custom. This practice was a harbinger of the problems that would arise decades later when there would be no more politicians eligible to hold Republican office. The political vacuum was an opportunity for people like Decimius Brutus. His father did not make a great career, because he was never interested in the military side of Roman politics, and only thanks to conquests and military successes, politicians could have a greater impact on the fate of the state. Important for the future of Decimius was his mother Sempronia, descended from the famous Gracchi family, associated with the conspirators of Catiline, i.e. a representative of the “party” of reformers in the Republic, to which Julius Caesar also belonged. It is possible that the future dictator was also her lover.

Decimius appears in history as one of Caesar’s aides during the wars in Gaul. This is not unusual, as many politicians have taken inexperienced relatives of allies under their wing as a favour. Under the command of Caesar in Gaul were, for example, the son of Marcus Licinius Crassus, or the brother of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Decimius was appointed commander of the fleet to subdue the Veneti living in Armorica (now Brittany) in north-western France. In 56 BCE he defeated the Celts at the Battle of the Gulf of Morbihan, who were vastly outnumbered and experienced sailors – for the Romans, it was the first battle in the Atlantic Ocean. Decimius won his great victory at the age of 25, which was quite an achievement, but commanding the fleet was not a special distinction for the Romans, who preferred fighting on land. The young politician consolidated his position as the commander of Caesar’s fleet. He probably took part in crossings to the British Isles, and during the civil war, he was a victor during naval battles near Massalia (modern Marseille) and commanded the sea blockade of the city. This did not mean that he did not support Caesar on land if necessary, for example during the battles with Vercingetorix in 52 BCE.

In 49 BCE the next generation of Junius Brutus faced each other, although this time they did not play key roles. Despite close relations with Caesar, Marcus was family and politically connected with Cato the Younger, and through his wife with the powerful Claudius family, whom he supported during the performance of duties in the eastern provinces. Despite his personal and political animosity towards Pompey, he decided to go with him and the Senate to Greece to continue the fight against Caesar. Decimius was appointed as Caesar’s successor in Transalpine Gaul, which he administered throughout practically the entire period of the civil war. The then province included the area annexed after the Gallic Wars, as there was no time to legally sanction the conquest and division of the conquered territory. At first glance, this seems like a great honour for a still young politician, but Caesar appointed Decimius to perform important but secondary tasks. Taking over Massalia was as important as maintaining control over still unpacified Gaul, but it was thousands of kilometres to the southeast that the fate of the Republic was decided. Especially since the experience of the young governor could be useful, because Caesar’s campaign had two maritime episodes – the transport of troops to Macedonia and the later Egyptian campaign, in which another commander of the naval fleet – Gaius Cassius – took part. Previously, he commanded Pompey’s fleet, and Caesar pardoned him by recruiting him into service. The dictator entrusted control over Rome during the civil war to Mark Antony and Lepidus, which testified to the established position of his closest associates. Decimius’s loyalty didn’t matter that much. Marcus Brutus went over to Caesar’s camp and was quickly rewarded with positions that Decimius had to earn through years of service in Gaul.

The secondary character of Decymius is evidenced by, for example, the nomination for the governor of the province of Cisalpine Gaul in 43 BCE, and the nomination for the consul. There are opinions that the mentioned province was the best reward for the politician, because it allowed controlling the situation in Italy, and in case of problems, like Caesar, to cross the Rubicon and introduce order. However, it must be remembered that the dictator planned a great campaign against Dacia and Parthia, so Decimius was again appointed to guard Caesar’s back office, which he would do both as a provincial governor, and then probably as a consul. The province again gained importance, but only after the death of the dictator and the start of power struggles.

Decimius was distinguished by Caesar by appearing in his will. He was appointed as one of the second-class heirs, and guardian of Caesar’s future natural children. Wills in ancient Rome not only served to organize matters after death but were also important in current politics. The Romans placed their allies and friends in them, so the appearance of his name should not be surprising, but one should not attach too much importance to it. Even until the outbreak of the civil war, Pompey was designated as Caesar’s heir, although he was definitely older than him, and their friendship ended in a bloody rivalry.

Julius Caesar’s actions began to raise serious concerns. The Senate showered him with titles and powers, and he himself did not look like someone who, like Sulla, would go into political retirement after putting the situation in order in the country. Rumours about his plans to become king circulated in Rome, and Caesar did not deny them. There were rumours of an assassination attempt on the dictator. The practice of murdering politicians displaying authoritarian tendencies and seeking to overthrow the legal order was nothing new in the Roman Republic. Concerned citizens who raised the sword against tyrants were treated as heroes, and the Senate post factum legalized their actions. Decimius Brutus joined the conspiracy led by Marcus Brutus and Cassius, but he was the most influential figure in the Caesarian order who took part in the conspiracy.

Marcus Junius Brutus according to some Roman historians was supposed to be the fruit of Caesar’s informal relationship with Serville.

Why did the closest politicians turn away from Caesar, who for years had shown his disrespect for the republican order, forcing his will often against the law? The defence of the Republic from the lips of the accomplices sounds incredible, although of course it cannot be ruled out that they believed Caesar’s propaganda about defending the law. It seems that Caesar’s party could accept his authoritarian rule since everyone believed that he would succeed him in the future. At the time of the introduction of the monarchy, the rules of political succession would change, which would deprive them of a chance to take full power, and the circle of decision-makers would be naturally limited. Supporters would have to accept the existence of a political ceiling, positions would become just empty slogans, and Caesar, as king, would most likely introduce inheritance of power. Caesar’s contempt for republican institutions also directly affected the nominees, and a blow to dignitas politics was something unforgivable in the Roman world. Caesar forgot that he was only the leader of the Caesarians, who could turn on him at some point.

The assassination took place on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Decimius played a key role because it was he who persuaded Caesar to come to the Senate meeting, despite health problems and fears for his life. His further actions remain unexplained. Decimius may have been involved in the direct attack on Caesar, who was killed by several dagger blows, but he might as well have stayed out of the Senate session and instead supervised his gladiators, whom he stationed near the scene in case things turned out to be unfavourable. The second version of events would fit the then career of Decimius – a key politician, but always away from the events of the most serious importance.

Caesar’s death paralyzed all sides of the conflict. The assassins did not plan further murders, hoping that the murder of one person would be universally accepted and everything would return to relative normality. Caesar’s supporters, on the other hand, did not know how to react. The first impulse would have been to avenge the leader’s death, but then politics stepped in. Lepidus controlled a legion stationed near Rome, but Antony was aware that by giving Lepidus the go-ahead to massacre his opponents, he might have been within a stroke of the sword from ending his life. In addition, a radical crackdown on the assassins could have caused indignation among the army stationed in Cisalpine Gaul, whose governor was to be known and respected there Decimius Brutus. Finally, a compromise was reached a few months after the events. The Senate granted an amnesty to murderers, but at the same time confirmed all the laws introduced during Caesar’s reign.

From that moment, preparations for the confrontation began, but it was not very clear in what configuration it would take place. The politicians went to the places that had been assigned to them for the next year. However, the compromise was broken by Marcus Antony, who, together with his co-consul Publius Cornelius Dolabella, pushed through an act changing proconsulships. Antony was to take control of Brutus’s province, while the latter was to take over Syria destined for Cassius. Caesar’s heirs entered the political disputes, especially Octavian, who took the surname of his uncle. The Senate, concerned about Antony’s authoritarianism, waited for the right opportunity to openly stand against him. Lepidus and Lucius Munatius Plankus, who ruled in the other Gallic provinces, were waiting for the situation to be resolved, Antony’s brother summoned by him was to march towards Italy. Cassius and Brutus had to deal with Dolabella, who murdered Gaius Trebonius on his way to Syria, and only then could they try to prepare for possible relief.

Cicero managed to convince the Senate and Octavian to support the cause of Brutus, which meant going against Antony, who in December 44 BCE directed loyal troops towards Mutina (present-day Modena). The war was decided in two battles. First, Antony failed to stop the relief led by the consuls and Octavian, and then the combined forces of Decimius and the Senate army defeated the troops besieging the city. Antony fled towards Gaul, and Decimius’ troops followed in his footsteps and linked up with Plancus. The success turned out to be a failure, however, and the agreement between Octavian and Brutus was put to the test when the former allowed the troops that joined Antony to pass. Later it turned out that Lepidus sided with Antony, acting first as a mediator and then explaining the change of sides at the insistence of his legionaries. Successive western governors did likewise. The idea of ​​avenging Caesar was popular among legionaries, but political decisions were pragmatic. No relief was organized from the east for Decimius, who did not have the financial resources to recruit and maintain the army, and after the death of the consuls, nominating deputies remained an open question, which occupied the Senate. It was not known how the fate of the Republic would ultimately turn out, because either side could come to an agreement. The deadlock was broken by Octavian, who forced the Senate to elect himself and his cousin as consul. Taking control of the Senate allowed him to officially break the deal with Caesar’s murderers, and to rehabilitate Lepidus and Antony. Encircled and abandoned, Decimius Brutus decided to fly alone to the East to join Cassius and Marcus Brutus. He was eventually captured and executed on Antony’s orders.

So why has history forgotten about Decimius Junius Brutus Albinus? Ancient historians mention his character next to Cassius and Marcus Brutus and even put him in the first place among the conspirators due to the position he held in Caesar’s party. Was this a deliberate erasure from history? Antony and Octavian had the worst opinion of him, and the legionaries were reluctant to serve under his command due to the betrayal of their longtime mentor. The other coup leaders at least had an episode in which they fought against Caesar and could be excused. The reason seems to be more prosaic. The similarity of the surnames caused Marcus and Decimius to be combined into one figure that appeared in the common consciousness. Bernard Bounduart, the author of a monograph on the politician, pointed out that copyists could make mistakes when rewriting the text because they did not know when it was about Marcus and when about Decimius. Brutus and Cassius also resisted the triumvirs longer and made a more showy fight against the new regime at Philippi, where the mighty armies clashed. Decimius dying in the guise of a Gaul, who had to flee due to the political machinations of the factions, does not look so good. They remember him in one place. The fight for Mutina is found in the frescoes in the Palazzo Comunale in Modena, where the Renaissance painter Nicolò dell’Abate depicted scenes of fights between Decimius and Antony. For the inhabitants of the city, the figure of Decimius reminds them of the ancient roots of the city, and at the time of the creation of the work, he was a symbol of free and independent Modena in fragmented Italy.

Author: Wojciech Paukszteło (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Bernard Bondurant, Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus; a historical study, Chicago 1907.
  • Erich S. Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Londyn 1995.
  • Marjeta Sasel Kos, The Death of Decimus Brutus. The Strange Case of his Artillery and the Iapodes, “Tyche” 2017, nr 32, s. 167-180.
  • Miriam Griffin, A Companion to Julius Caesar, Chichester 2009.
  • Olga V. Liubimova, The Mother of Decimus Brutus and the Wife of Gaius Gracchus, “Mnemosyne” 2020, nr 74, s. 825-850.
  • Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution, Oxford 2002.

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